|Riad Ymeri and Iris Karlin|
The success of any production of Georges Bizet's 1875 Carmen rises and falls on the performances of the four main characters, and, by this standard, Amore Opera's production is an unqualified success. The cast we heard last night at The Riverside Theater (yes, Amore Opera appears to have moved uptown) met the stringent demands both vocally and dramatically. The roles are triple-cast so you may not hear the same cast as we heard, but you are likely to enjoy the performances as much as we did.
This is not at all like the radical condensed version we enjoyed a few nights ago, but rather a complete 3 1/2 hour leisurely telling of the tale, complete with all the subsidiary characters, an excellent chorus, and more than two dozen children. We have just realized the reason for bringing children into the performance. This is a special kind of outreach (or should we call it "in-bringing") a strategy by which children will get to know and appreciate opera. Hello audience of tomorrow!
Founding Artistic Director Nathan Hull, also responsible for the competent stage direction, has fulfilled yet another mission, aside from bringing opera to New Yorkers at a modest cost and providing onstage experience for lots of young artists. Judging by the thunderous applause at the conclusion and our own satisfaction, he has done well.
We will spare you a recitation of the well-known story but when we see Donizetti's nearly unknown work La Zingara next week, you will definitely hear about the story. This is Amore Opera's "Gypsy Season"!
As the eponymous tragic heroine, soprano Iris Karlin could have easily convinced us that she was a mezzo-soprano. Her dark colored voice is on the large size and quite brilliant at the upper end of the register, but there was no denying the strength she exhibited at the lower end of the register. Her "Habanera" and "Seguidilla" were both excellent.
Her vocal skills were well matched by her dramatic portrayal. Her Carmen was seductive, manipulative, and larger than life. She clearly conveyed the sense of a strong and willful character. We are not sure by what magic Ms. Karlin also allowed us to feel sympathy for her character.
As the unfortunate Don Jose, one of her victims, tenor Riad Ymeri gave a vocally strong performance. He is a rare tenor who can produce volume at the upper end of the register without pushing. (That is the main fault we find with dramatic tenors; we can feel the tightness in our own throat.) His acting conveyed the sense that the character's violence comes from powerlessness. He hasn't the strength of character to make a decision but allows fate to make it for him. He is stuck in life and in his obsession with Carmen and unable to extricate himself.
He was particularly fine in "La fleur que tu m'avais jetee", evoking our sympathy.
Soprano Helaine Liebman made a winsome Micaela who was particularly excellent in her third act aria "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante". When she sang in her high clear voice, she evinced all the terror of a teenager on a dangerous mission, and all her trust in God. Would that her acting might have carried over into the spoken dialogue! That should be easy to amend.
As Escamillo, baritone Robert Heepyoung Oh sang smoothly with fine phrasing, and conveyed a believable sense of self-confidence without the cliched arrogance we usually see. We like the fact that he was rather bemused by Don Jose in the mountain confrontation and neutralized him with ease. Of course the "Toreador Song" is his hit number but we loved his duet in Act IV "Si tu m'aimes Carmen".
Carmen's friends Frasquita (soprano Stephanie Leotsakos) and Mercedes (mezzo-soprano Elsa Queron) added much to every scene they were in and harmonized beautifully. The two smugglers Dancairo (baritone Spencer Leopold Cohen) and his sidekick Remendado (tenor Drew Watson) added some much-needed comic relief. We loved the quintet in Act II "Nous avons en tete une affaire".
As Zuniga, bass Gennadiy Vysotskiy sang well and portrayed drunkenness most effectively. In the non-singing part of the Innkeeper Lillas Pastia, Trey Sandusky added more humor as he tried to get his customers to leave. We believe we also saw him as the Constable in Act IV, chasing a mischievous boy.
Susan Morton's chorus sang well and moved about the smallish stage as best they could.
Thanks to French diction coach Danielle Feaster, the French was just about perfect, as agreed upon by our Francophone companion. As was originally written for the Opera-Comique, dialogue was delivered in English and, if we are not mistaken, seems to have been modified into some rather contemporary idiom. Or perhaps just loosely translated. In any case, we liked it and felt it helped to understand the characters better.
Bizet's lush orchestration gave plenty of content for the Amore Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Richard Cordova. We particularly noted the fine flute solos during the interlude before Act III (Richard Paratley).
Mr. Hull's direction always brings in a few novelties and we loved Carmen lassoing Don Jose with the rope that had been used to tie her up. Likewise the naughty boy who snitched the toreador's cape and was pursued by the Constable.
Cynthia Psoras' costume design was just wonderful, from the gypsies to the soldiers. Especially dazzling was the gown Carmen wore to the bullfight in Act IV.
Richard Cerullo's sets were simple but effective. We fault Lauren Bremen's lighting for not having spotlights on the main characters who were often left in the dark.
The audience probably loved the Spanish dancing choreographed by Jorge Navarro but when we think about a tavern on the outskirts of Seville we imagine something a lot more raw. What we saw last night was as refined as one would see at a tourist show. But we liked the sensuous dance Carmen performed to seduce Don Jose.
Our quibbles are small; our pleasure was great. Do catch one of the performances and, if you like it, consider helping this worthy company to survive and grow. New York needs its small companies!
(c) meche kroop